Pakistan goes to the polls tomorrow. Perhaps there has been no other election in the country’s history which was contested in such an environment. Almost all players appear to be wary of not just political factors, but also external intervention which might impact the eventual outcome. Whichever political party wins Punjab is most likely to form the government in the centre. All three mainstream parties claim to hold sway over the electorate in Punjab. Though the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) are the only serious contenders for the province. I have travelled extensively across Punjab over the last two months and the ground realities appear much different than what you see or hear in the mainstream media. One disclaimer though! These are just my observations and are not backed by any scientific data. I have formed my views through discussions with my journalist friends, some informed circles, election contestants and a lot of common people. There are many Punjabis who are least concerned about the Panama case and the verdict against the Sharifs. If you venture outside big cities, the conviction of Nawaz Sharif hasn’t influenced people to change voting patterns at all. The fact of the matter is corruption accusations emerge left, right, and centre before each election and hence ordinary people have become desensitized to them. Moreover, the intricacies of the Panama case are too complex for most people. Even debates on the television have been more opinionated than factual Most common people that I spoke to seemed convinced that the cases against the Sharifs and their subsequent verdicts were politically motivated. Whether or not they are corrupt is a different story. This has created sympathy for them and reinforced the existing power base of the party. The slogan Mujhe kyun nikala might have been subject to jokes and memes, but it has got the PML-N leader the traction he needed. The development work that the PML-N government has carried-out in Punjab appears to have tilted public opinion in their favour as well. It is true that the metro buses, the orange trains, the underpasses, and overhead bridges are largely restricted to Lahore, but these mega projects have done just enough to dazzle the voters in other areas of Punjab. Barring a few pockets, the majority in Punjab seems unruffled by the social media hype of projects that PTI has initiated in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). The reduction in load shedding is perhaps the biggest advantage the PML-N has in the lead-up to the 2018 elections. The fact that the situation has improved significantly since 2013 when this government took power has apparently impressed domestic and commercial consumers alike. Whether the PML-N has amassed unnecessary foreign loans or taken kickbacks in the bargain doesn’t appear to concern them for now. Other than staunch PTI fans, I have not heard the “Nawaz Sharif is anti-state” argument from anyone. A considerable chunk of the population still considers Imran Khan a messiah who can cure all ills currently plaguing Pakistan. Whether their number is substantial enough to catapult the mighty Khan to the Prime Minister’s house is still not clear. Supporters will probably be disappointed if the PTI is not able to deliver change like it promises, but the PTI leadership will only have themselves to blame for this. Furthermore, there is infighting going on among different groups of ‘electables’ that PTI has so gleefully welcomed into it’s folds, this will do more harm than good to the party. Imran Khan’s willingness to work with tainted politicians has also left many voters disillusioned. At the peripheral level, there is hardly any difference between the candidates fielded by PTI and PML-N, or any other party for that matter. All of them (irrespective of the party affiliation) are involved in buying votes and manipulating the system At the peripheral level, there is hardly any difference between the candidates fielded by PTI and PML-N, or any other party for that matter. All of them (irrespective of the party affiliation) are involved in buying votes and manipulating the system. For an ordinary voter, it becomes difficult to find the “clean” option that PTI has so vehemently been advocating for over the last few years. In the absence of any such distinction, they are more than likely to make the final decision based on their local considerations rather than siding with any big revolutionary change. The PML-N is also a far better player of the electables game than PTI. Even the defections in South Punjab from PML-N to PTI before the elections are not likely to change the situation much. Unlike what people in the intelligentsia think, the alleged backing of the establishment is not a concern for the ordinary voters. They seem convinced that is always a hidden hand that manoeuvres the final results one way or the other. Therefore, most of them accept that (in case it is true) as a reality that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. It is other factors that are more significant in swaying them one way or the other. To my surprise, Imran Khan’s personal conduct has been a telling factor in portraying his image as a non-serious option among the voters in Punjab. If the wedding to Reham Khan that ended in abrupt divorce wasn’t enough, his recent marriage (and how it all unfolded) has been nothing short of a killer blow to PTI’s chances. The PTI leadership and their supporters have taken refuge behind the argument that it is Imran Khan’s personal life, but it will still influence voters. Somehow, the accusation that Imran Khan has been launched under some big Zionist conspiracy to take-over Pakistan is still prevalent in smaller towns and rural areas. I personally find that disappointing, but the religious right doesn’t appear convinced by Imran Khan’s effort to woo them with overt religiosity. At the risk of going against the popular narrative in the media, I don’t see PML-N getting any weaker in Punjab. Outside major metropolitans and the youth power-base that PTI has always enjoyed, support for the party’s agenda dwindles sharply in Punjab. They will still be competitive but are not likely to uproot PML-N to gain the majority in Punjab. There might be the difference of a few seats here and there compared to the party’s position in 2013, but the embattled PML-N will still emerge equal to PTI, if not better off, in terms of winning constituencies. That is of course assuming that polling takes place in a somewhat free and transparent manner. If that happens, it will become very difficult for PTI to form a government in the centre. The only option left for the powers-that-be after the elections will be to engineer forward blocks to support the dispensation of their choice. I have already heard murmurs about that as a possible option if push comes to shove. Personally, I think that will be much more difficult to achieve and any such move will only aggravate the current political environment. Given our chequered political history, one thing is for sure. None of the power players will learn from their mistakes and will go to any length to have it their way. The writer is Assistant Professor of Communication at Lamar University, Texas Published in Daily Times, July 24th 2018.